Sierra Club applauds United States govt’s reinvestment in restoring water levels

ONTARIO—While United States (US) President Barack Obama has included funding in the federal 2014 budget for the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to re-evaluate past compensation design measures in the St. Clair River, the Sierra Club of Canada is calling for the Canadian federal government to provide the same type of funding support to alleviate decreasing water levels.

“We have some great news,” stated Mary Muter, chair of the Sierra Club of Canada Great Lakes Section, last week. “US President Barack Obama has outlined funding being provided in the federal government budget for 2014 for USACE to re-evaluate past compensation measures.”

“We’re saying where is Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper on all of this and that our government needs to take the same action,” said Ms. Muter last Friday. She explained the US government money has to be used by October. “It is crucial that Canada put similar money on the table.”

After 50 years of failing to complete the terms and conditions of a US/Canada agreement to compensate for the loss of water from Lakes Michigan-Huron and Georgian Bay due to navigation dredging in the St. Clair River, US President Barack Obama’s Administration has started to act, a release Tuesday stated. Last week, the US president approved a modest amount of funding for the US Army Corps of Engineers to re-evaluate its past compensation designs in light of current knowledge and technologies. The president’s funding will get the process started. The Corps engineering analysis should take up to three years to complete.

“The Great Lakes Section members have been working on this significant loss of finite water from the upper Great Lakes water for over 12 years,” said John Bennett, national program director for the Sierra Club Canada Foundation. “This announcement is a testament to the persistence and scientific expertise of a small group of dedicated volunteers to finally get our governments to act. I applaud their efforts. This announcement would never have happened without their tireless work.”

The Sierra Club Canada Foundation notes that while the last 12 month ‘blip’ of extraordinarily high precipitation and extreme cold winter has provided some relief to the upper Great Lakes, water levels on Lakes Michigan and Huron/Georgian Bay are still about 13 inches below their long term average. Meanwhile, the other Great Lakes are at (or above) their long term averages under similar conditions. “This disparity cannot be allowed to continue and we are pleased that President Obama understands that,” continued Mr. Bennett. “We now need to hear from our prime minister. Canada needs to play a greater role in protecting the Great Lakes and moving the long overdue bi-national agreement for compensation measures in the St. Clair River to completion.”

Decades of human alterations to the St. Clair River, including dredging and subsequent river bottom erosion, has increased the outflow from Lake Huron and further deepened the river at some locations to be over 60 feet deep. Ships only need 27 feet to pass when they are fully loaded.

Ms. Muter is one of a team of Sierra Club researchers that have supported the need to retain water in all the Great Lakes, including St. Clair River compensation measures. As well as being involved in Sierra Club Canada she is the vice-chair of the binational group known as ‘Restore Our Water International’ (ROWI) which has pushed for the Obama administration to act. “The loss of wetland and fish habitat as a result of the last 12 years of critically low water levels is unacceptable. The exposed shorelines have been taken over by the invasive plants including Phragmites australis and eurasian milfoil, whose very dense growth provide little habitat for fish and wildlife. We know that compensation measures can be deployed in the St. Clair River in an environmentally responsible manner, with full consideration of both upstream and downstream interests,” Ms. Muter added.

The funding being provided by the US government is “incredibly good news,” stated Ms. Muter.

It has been 10 months since the International Joint Commission (IJC) provided its advice to the US and Canadian federal governments to investigate structural options to restore Lakes Michigan and Huron water levels to a more natural range. The IJC recommendation, submitted on April 15, 2013 was one outcome of a five-year, $17 million study to address economic and environmental damage on the upper Great Lakes from severe low water conditions. This recommendation has been in the hands of staff in the US State Department and the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 10 months to decide what next steps should be taken, which agency should be directed to address the problem and how long it should take to solve the problem.

ROWI believes that the next logical step is for the USACE to develop detailed engineering designs for a variety of structural options to be installed in the St. Clair River. The engineering design should look at restoring water levels upstream by up to 50 centimeters. This level of relief is consistent with authorizations that the Corps received from the US Congress in 1957 for “compensation” of their dredging activities in the St. Clair River in the 1930s and 1960s and erosion of the riverbed since then. The engineering analyses need to also include studies on the environmental and economic impacts of the various options. The Corps limits this type of work to be done within three years for less than $3 million.

“The foot-dragging by governments is unconscionable,” according to Roger Gauthier, chair of ROWI and a retired senior hydrologist with the Corps, in a release last week. “We recognize that this is a complex problem, but it is simply ‘paralysis by analysis.’ The IJC deliberated for several years over its recommendation. Now the State Department and Foreign Affairs Ministry are cogitating over the issue without adding value towards a timely solution.”

Tom Sasvari